Grandmother was creator of No Signboard Seafood's famed white pepper crab

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 23, 2012

Mr Sam Lim is the chairman of popular restaurant chain No Signboard Seafood. The founder of popular restaurant chain No Signboard Seafood, Madam Ong Kim Hoi, died last Thursday at the age of 74. -- ST FILE PHOTOMARK CHEONG
Mr Sam Lim is the chairman of popular restaurant chain No Signboard Seafood. The founder of popular restaurant chain No Signboard Seafood, Madam Ong Kim Hoi, died last Thursday at the age of 74. -- ST FILE PHOTOMARK CHEONG

The founder of popular restaurant chain No Signboard Seafood, Madam Ong Kim Hoi, died last Thursday at the age of 74.

The one-time hawker is said to have died of natural causes and had been in and out of hospital for the past three months with complications from a stroke she suffered nearly a decade ago. It had left her bedridden.

Read an interview from 2012 with her grandson, Mr Sam Lim, and find out why Madam Ong created a white pepper crab dish instead of a black pepper one.

As an eight-year-old boy, Sam Lim would take the public bus to school on his own.

The chairman of restaurant chain No Signboard Seafood remembers taking the two-hour ride from his home in Bedok to his school in Clementi.

"Life was difficult," says Mr Lim, 35, in a slightly sober tone. "I was independent from a very young age."

The four-room HDB flat belonged to his maternal grandparents. It was home to more than 10 people, including his parents and older sister, his grandparents and his mother's four siblings and spouses. The entire family was relocated there from their kampong in the Tai Seng area, off Paya Lebar Road, in the late 1970s.

His family had tried to live on their own in a three-room HDB flat in Clementi, but could not keep up with the mortgage payments and moved back in with his grandparents after a year.

Mr Lim says with a laugh: "I didn't know how to be scared then. Even when I took the bus home, I would just lean and sleep on someone's shoulder or leg, and they would just let me sleep."

Those days are far behind him now.

As you walk into his house compound, a bungalow with an expansive garden in the eastern part of Singapore, you are greeted by three luxury cars - an Aston Martin DBS, a Rolls-Royce Ghost and a Lambor- ghini, a limited-edition $1.58- million LP670 - all less than two years old.

Not too shabby for a man who spent eight years at Pei Tong Primary School. He has come this far because he helped transform his grandmother's hawker stall into a brand-name chain with eight outlets.

The restaurants are in places such as The Esplanade and VivoCity. No Signboard has been in Hong Kong since last May, while the outlet in Jakarta is run by a franchise partner.

His only setback so far? A failed venture at The Venetian Macao resort. It opened in 2008 and closed 1½ years later.

The company lost $3 million there but it taught Lim an expensive lesson. He says: "I don't regret opening the Venetian branch because I gained experience.

"I made a mistake - it was too big. Always start small in another country. People might not know you, so it's better to start on a smaller scale."

His Hong Kong outlet in Causeway Bay's Fashion Walk mall is 3,000sq-ft, less than a third the size of the former Macau outlet, and is profitable, he says.

He oversees the group's business planning and development, and its finances.

His mother, Madam Cheo Bee Hwa, 54, two uncles and an aunt, a cousin and his sister Lay Hoon, 38, are involved in the business. His father, Lim Hong, 62, is a retired carpenter.

No Signboard is famed for its white pepper crab - crab stir-fried in aromatic white pepper sauce and generously garnished with stalks of spring onion.

The dish was created by his maternal grandmother, Madam Ong Kim Hoi, now 72, who sold crabs at Mattar Road hawker centre in Aljunied in the 1970s.

Madam Cheo says her mother created the dish because many eateries were offering the black pepper version, which she felt overpowered the palate. She felt that white pepper crab would make her crabs unique and also enhance its flavour.

It may not be the oldest seafood restaurant in Singapore but No Signboard has made a name for itself as one that serves some of the tastiest seafood in town, which includes chilli crab and a Hokkien- style steamed fish.

Back then, the family could not afford to pay for a sign and simply painted the plank above their stall orange. It became known as wu zhao pai in Mandarin, which translates to No Signboard.

Mr Lim is unabashed about taking the longer route to finish primary school and about not having the aptitude to further his studies then. He says: "I was very stupid last time, seriously."

Of his primary school days, he says animatedly: "I couldn't pass my exams, so I studied for eight years. There was primary 8E (extended) and primary 8M (monolingual) and 8M was the extremely bad one. I was in the extremely bad one."

He went on to the Vocational and Industrial Training Board, the predecessor of Institute of Technical Education (ITE), and was trained to be a motor vehicle mechanic.

He attributes his success mainly to plain old gut-feel.

He helped out at the hawker stall when he was a kid, delivering hot food to customers, an experience he found both fun and nerve- wracking.

During his days at the vocational institute, he took on different jobs to support himself. He was a window washer, petrol pump attendant and kitchen hand, among other things. He even worked as a labourer, moving tonnes of airport cargo by hand every day.

He joined the family business full-time after finishing national service in 1998. He says: "I thought I'd try it, see how things worked. I had nothing to lose."

By then, the hawker stall, which relocated from Mattar Road to Farrer Park, had moved its business into shophouses. The family ran two outlets, one in Race Course Lane and the other in Geylang. The Geylang outlet still exists today.

It was his job then to put out 30 tables and 300 chairs before meal-time in Race Course Lane. He set each table and prepared stocks and desserts.

He also chopped coconuts by hand.

The family was making just enough but he yearned for something more. He says: "I knew we had to move forward. My family had been suffering for so many years - they woke up at 5am to buy seafood and slept at 2am. We would either make it or we wouldn't. We had never stepped out of the hawker profile but I knew we had to give it a try."

He began scouting for new premises and chanced upon a space at the now- defunct Oasis building in Kallang.

A shareholder of Oasis must have seen the potential in him and gave the then coffee- shop space to him on the spot.

That space at Oasis became No Signboard Seafood's first full- fledged, air-conditioned restaurant and opened in 2000.

Little did he know that he had also caught a glimpse of his future wife the day he agreed to set up shop there.

He is married to the late shareholder's daughter, Ong San San, 35, now a housewife. They have two sons, Lim Yi, nine, and Lim Ye, six.

Ms Ong, who has an accounting and finance degree from an Australian uni- versity, met Lim in 2000 when she came home from Sydney after graduating.

She says: "I first saw him the day he came in and asked to meet the management of Oasis, where I was working part- time. He was a very neat person, in a white T-shirt and blue jeans. Later on, my father took me to eat at their outlet in Race Course Lane and we exchanged numbers somewhere along the way."

She found him interesting and down- to-earth. "He is not the romantic type who will blow you away with flowers, he's the practical sort," she recalls.

Marrying him in 2002 was a "natural progression", she says and she did not see their differences in education levels as an obstacle.

To fund the start-up of the new restaurant at Oasis, he borrowed $300,000 from friends - no bank would give his family a loan.

Mr Lim had estimated that the amount would be enough to sustain the business for six months and he figured he could cut costs by painting the space and doing the electrical wiring himself.

The restaurant recouped its initial investment within four months. It remained successful until the building was taken over by the Government in 2008.

But Mr Lim's next venture would prove to be yet another challenge - opening an upscale No Signboard in 2005 at one of Singapore's most iconic spots in the CBD - The Esplanade.

He says he is grateful to the venue's chief executive Benson Puah for letting him do so. The new outlet helped take the brand up a notch, to one associated with a more sophisticated dining experience.

Mr Puah, chief executive of The Esplanade, says: "When I first met Sam, he impressed me as an earnest and sincere businessman, eager to try something new. The restaurant wasn't what you would instinctively call a good fit. Even my colleagues were initially sceptical and didn't think I would agree.

"My bet was on Sam after meeting him as I felt that he would rise to my challenge of upgrading the service levels and ambience compatible to being at Esplanade, but yet not over-gentrifying it or going over the top with bling and glitz."

The $1-million restaurant has been a hit with the public and tourists. The group has since expanded into malls such as The Central in Eu Tong Sen Street, and overseas.

Most of the group's restaurants range from about 6,000 to 7,000sq-ft in size and seat 250 people on average. Each usually operates at full capacity, he says, save for the Robertson Quay outlet, which is less busy. He employs about 250 staff and sells "a tonne of crabs a day" across all the outlets.

His mother, who oversees the seafood departments, could not be more proud.

Speaking in Mandarin, she says: "We are uneducated and we had been hawkers for such a long time. We had never thought about growing the business to become a restaurant chain. But since my son had the vision to do it, we left it to him. He's done a very good job and I am very proud of him."

Lim is neither pompous nor arrogant despite his fancy cars, marble-floored home and garden of neatly groomed hedges in the shape of baby elephants.

He had bought the 9,500sq-ft property about five years ago with the intention of having the whole family live under one roof, just like they once did in the past.

He says: "I bought the house so that everyone could live in it."

Living together was "fun". Remembering the warmth when the entire family lived under his grandmother's roof, with four or five to a room, he says: "It was not squeezy. We could talk, we could play and we would eat together."

Members of his extended family have chosen to live on their own.

The business-savvy Mr Lim adds that the bungalow is also an investment - if and when the company is hit by hard times, he says he can re-finance the home to generate funds. The same goes for the luxury cars - he will sell them if necessary.

Aside from afternoon tea, he offers the photographer his chauffeur's services on this hot and humid day. He even offered to drive this reporter to her next destination as well.

His kids, he insists, are not spoilt, despite being privileged. He spends as much time with them as he can, taking them swimming and cycling on weekends and playing with them when he is at home.

His wife says as far as being a father goes, she rates him an eight or nine out of 10.

Her husband has a plan to keep their children grounded and she reckons it a good thing -he wants his kids to take the bus, on their own.

He says: "Our driver picks them up from school now but from next year, I intend to have the school bus take them to and from school. And after another year, the public bus."

Ask him if he thinks his older son might still be a little too young to ride the bus alone in a couple of years and he replies: "He's nine! I took the bus from Bedok to Clementi when I was eight. I want them to learn to be independent, it is a must."

At least his son's ride will be a shorter one - from Siglap to Bedok.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 23, 2012

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